The Berlin Wall

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  1. Background
  2. Construction
  3. Measurements
  4. Fall
  5. Memorial


Because of dissatisfaction with the economic and political conditions (forced collectivization of agriculture, repression of private trade, supply gaps), an increasing number of people left the GDR. From January to the beginning of August 1961, about 160,000 refugees were counted. Also, the international political situation was tense. On 1958-11-27, the Soviets (Khrushchev) had delivered their Berlin ultimatum, demanding that the western allies should withdraw their troops from West Berlin and that West Berlin should become a "Free City" within six months. On 1959-02-17, the threat of settling a separate peace treaty between the USSR the GDR followed. The meeting between US President Kennedy and the Prime Minister of the USSR, Khrushchev, on 1961-06-03/04 in Vienna ended without any noticeable results.

Generally, measures of the government of the GDR were expected with the aim of preventing people from leaving the GDR. At an international press conference on June 15, 1961, Walter Ulbricht (the leader of the east German communist party, SED, and President of the Privy Council) answered to the question of a journalist: "I understand your question as follows: there are people in West Germany who want us to mobilize the construction workers of the GDR to build a wall. I am not aware of any such plans... No one has the intention of constructing a wall."

Construction of the Wall

Early in the morning of Sunday, August 13, 1961, the GDR began under the leadership of Erich Honecker to block off East Berlin and the GDR from West Berlin by means of barbed wire and antitank obstacles. Streets were torn up, and barricades of paving stones were erected. Tanks gathered at crucial places. The subway and local railway services between East and West Berlin were interrupted. Inhabitants of East Berlin and the GDR were no longer allowed to enter West Berlin, amongst them 60,000 commuters who had worked in West Berlin so far. In the following days, construction brigades began replacing the provisional barriers by a solid wall.

The reaction of the western allies was moderate, since the three essentials of the American policy regarding Berlin were not affected: presence of allied troops, free access to Berlin and the right of self-determination of the West Berliners.

After 1961-08-23, citizens of West Berlin were no longer allowed to enter East Berlin. On 1961-09-20, the forced evacuation of houses situated immediately at the border to West Berlin began. On 1962-08-17, Peter Fechter, an eighteen years old citizen of East Berlin, bled to death after he was shot down by East Berlin border patrol in an attempt to escape over the wall.

On 1963-06-21, the Minister of National Defense of the GDR gave orders concerning the installation of a border area at the frontier between the GDR and West Berlin. Afterwards inhabitants of East Berlin living within a distance of 100 m to the border had to register.

The GDR propaganda called the wall an "Anti-fascist protection wall".


The border between West Berlin and East Berlin and the GDR had a total length of 166 km, and there was a deeply staggered system of barriers. There was a wall with a length of 107 km at this border. Finally, the border area looked about as follows: First, there was a wall which was made up of concrete segments with a height of 4 m, usually with a concrete tube on top of it. Behind it (at the "eastern" side) there was an illuminated control area (also called death area). Refugees who had reached that area were shot without warning. A trench followed which should prevent vehicles from breaking through. Then there was a patrol track, a corridor with watchdogs, watchtowers and bunkers, and a second wall.

The border cut through 192 streets, 97 of them leading to East Berlin and 95 into the GDR.

At least 100 people were killed at the Berlin Wall, the last of them was Chris Gueffroy (1989-02-06).


In the year 1989, there were dramatic events such as a massive flight of inhabitants of the GDR via Hungary and big demonstrations in Leipzig on Mondays. After weeks of discussion about a new travel law, the leader of East Berlin's communist party (SED), Günter Schabowski, said on November 9, 1989 at about 7 p.m. in somewhat unclear words that the border would be opened for "private trips abroad". Little later, an onrush of East Berliner's towards West Berlin began, and there were celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate and at the Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin. On November 10, demolition works began with the aim of creating new border crossings. On November 12, a checkpoint at the Potsdamer Platz was opened, and on December 22, a checkpoint for pedestrians was opened at the Brandenburg Gate. So-called "wall woodpeckers" hammered pieces out of the wall, many of which were sold as souvenirs. A few larger segments were officially donated or sold.

On July 1 1990, an economic, monetary and social union between East and West Germany was formed, and all restrictions concerning travels were dropped. The wall had vanished almost completely by 1991; there are a few remainders at the Bernauer Strasse, the Niederkirchnerstrasse (near the building of the former Prussian parliament, now housing the parliament of Berlin) and as the 1.3 km long "East-Side-Gallery" near the railway station "Ostbahnhof".

On February 1997, a red line was painted on the pavement at the former "Checkpoint Charlie" to mark the course of the former Berlin wall. This line shall reach a length of 20 km and shall be replaced by two rows of paving stones.


On August 13 1998, a wall memorial was inaugurated at the Bernauer Strasse (at the corner to the Ackerstrasse, city districts Wedding/Mitte). It consists of a remainder of the Berlin wall with a length of 70 m, provided with slits in the inner wall and steel sheets at the ends.

Burkhard Kirste, 1997-02-21, last modification 2003-02-27 (2014-01-22)